There are many forms of poverty – we tend to group them into “absolute” and “relative”. Absolute poverty offers immediate threat to life – it is where people lack the basics they need to survive in the short term – we see this type of poverty on our television screens all the time from drought or war torn countries. It is terrible. But relative poverty is also terrible – more of a terminal illness than a sudden death threat. People suffering from relative poverty live in prosperous nations and yet struggle to maintain what anyone might call a reasonable standard of living. They are more likely to get cancer, to die young, to end up in prison and suffer from abuse or violence.
Even within the realm of relative poverty, there are sub groups – the main two being generational and situational poverty. In situational poverty, circumstances have conspired to send the person or family into financial straits. This could be unemployment, long term sickness, immigration or the break up of a marriage. Parents who find themselves in situational poverty can often offer ways out for their children. They remember a better life and can shape a vision of what a better future might look like. They are more likely to value education and to sacrifice basics to ensure that their children are in correct uniform and have their equipment. They are more likely to understand how to make tiny budgets stretch and to know where to turn to for help. The children of these parents carry the same label as other children in poverty, but their chances of success are vastly improved.
Generational poverty, on the other hand, is far more tricky. In homes where there has been persistent poverty and sometimes worklessness over a number of generations, it is hard for any adult to be able to offer a child a vision of a different or a better life. Education is less likely to be valued. In this group there are higher levels of substance abuse, a higher chance of chaotic home lives and a sense of hopelessness. High levels of chronic stress are common in these environments and it is well documented that the production of cortisol in response to persistent stress inhibits cognitive function and memory. A perfect storm for any child.
Of course, both of these categories are roughly drawn and there are overlaps and grey areas. But they offer us an interesting question. To what extent are those schools claiming that their zero tolerance behaviour policies, their perfect uniforms, their insistence that every child should have the proper equipment with them, simply enacting a form of social cleansing? They claim that their policies lead to higher outcomes for FSM children but I wonder if they simply filter out the problem kids and leave themselves with those most likely to succeed. The poor children of aspirational immigrant families. Or the poor children of those in situational poverty. The others can be permanently excluded in the name of high expectations. And that simply exacerbates the underlying social problem. Throwing these children out of school, or refusing to accept that they might need equity more than equality, is an abdication of responsibility.
There are catastrophic events in some children’s lives which most of us can barely even imagine. In this Youtube clip, Chris Kilkenny speaks of what it was like to move from council flat to rehabilitation centres with his addicted mother, to care homes while trying to “hide in plain sight” at school. When you listen to him, you must surely realise that punishing a child living under this level of stress for not having a pencil is not a sign of having high expectations, but of having an almost inhuman lack of empathy and understanding. What would it cost us to have a pot of pens in the middle of the table and to focus on the business of learning? Not a lot.